If you know me, or have read any part of this blog, you know where I’m going to stand on these controversial changes to the game. I don’t like any rule changes to baseball for the purpose of bringing more entertainment value, or the real motivation, increasing revenues to the teams and players. But, and this is a big BUT, my opinions don’t really matter and it has taken a long time to come to that understanding. Please allow me to explain.
When I talk to younger fans, either through social media technologies like Twitter or face to face with the children of my peers, there is an unmistakable desire to improve the game by using instant replay. Not quite as overwhelming, but I get the feeling that nearly as many favor an extended playoff system thus providing more opportunity for their favorite team to win a championship. At least there is some ambivalence towards the designated hitter in the National League which means that should the league choose to implement it, the youngsters would be OK with that.
All of this is perfectly OK because the game is now more theirs than it is mine. The game has given me over 4 decades of great memories, and at the risk of sounding morose, it doesn’t have that many more to give me and those of my generation. What the game must do is continue to capture the interest of the younger fans so that it lives on. If it takes instant replay and a longer playoff system to do that, so be it. It will be much easier for me to adapt than to continue to bang the “how the game was once played” drum. It might even make that drum more appreciated since it will be played in the background rather than continually in the listeners face – which is as it should be.
Some other things to consider.
- In 1969, Major League Baseball added four teams (Kansas City, Seattle, San Diego and Montreal) and to accommodate them, created two divisions in each league with a round of playoffs to determine who would play in the World Series. It took the league 16 years to get it right, eventually switching to a best-of-seven format over the original best-of-five.
- In 1973, the American League adopted the Designated Hitter.
- In 1975, Andy Messersmith (and Dave McNally) became the first Free Agents.
- In the 1980’s, controlled substance abuse (cocaine in particular) became an epidemic.
- In the late 1990’s and early part of the 2000’s, steroids and human growth hormones (HGH) changed the way the game was played.
- Due to recent expansion, and planning for future teams, both leagues adopted a 3 division alignment and added a best-of-five game divisional playoff system in 1995.
Throughout all of this, new stadiums were built with shorter fences, bizarre outfield walls arrangements and that silly silly ant mound in Houston. Every single one of these has changed the game I grew up with and not a single one of them has made baseball any better, in my opinion. None of that matters because I am as much a fan of baseball now as I have ever been, perhaps even more so thanks to on-line social media and streaming video broadcasting over the Internet.
This seems to be the most popular choice among the younger fans that I talk to. For every story I can share about a team working an umpire (like Greg Maddux always getting the corners, and whoever is pitching to Pujols never getting the corners) there is an equally compelling one that tells a different story (Armando Galarraga’s non-perfect game in 2010, Don Denkinger in Game Six of the 1985 World Series). Rather than continuing to “agree to disagree”, I’ll come over to the instant replay side, but with a cautionary request – make it fast and make it simple.
College Football almost gets instant replay right. The decision whether to not to review a play is made by an official that is not on the field. If he (or she) thinks a particular call should have another look, they signal the referee on the field that play should be suspended. That official reviews the available video and issues a ruling: overturn, confirm or unable to determine so the call on the field stands. Most of these are done rather quickly, with the only delays being when the replay official has to determine where to place the ball and how much time should be put back on the clock. None of these problems apply to baseball, so it seems reasonable to assume that this can be done without a terrible interruption to the pace of the game. What MLB can’t do is put this decision in the hands of the two managers who will, as they often do in the NFL, turn it into yet another way to disrupt the flow of the game.
Concerns about instant replay adding to the length of an already long game can easily be resolved by a following a couple of rules that are already on the books, but never enforced: call the high strike and don’t let batters step out of the batter’s box without permission (and a reasonable excuse as to why they are doing so). Give me back the high strike and keep the batter in the box and I can enthusiastically sign on to instant replay.
In many respects, this genie is already out of the bottle. The one thing that separated baseball from the other sports was that the grind of a horrifically long season would ultimately determine the best team in each league, and they would face each other in the championship series – which is yet another war of attrition fought over as many as seven games. That has not been the case since 1969 and even less so since 1995. We’ve all pretty much come to terms with it, and if we were being totally honest, we actually like the arrangement since it means a chance to see our favorite team playing more meaningful games late in the season.
In order to sign up to this, I’ll need a few more concessions than with Instant Reply.
(1) Avoid a short series. Baseball is a game of attrition and the playoffs should test both team’s rosters just as much as the regular season. Make every round a best of seven series so that the starting rotations get stretched out and the two bullpens become tested. Don’t let a couple of hot pitchers and a short series knock a team out of the playoffs like the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks did to the Cardinals.
(2) Keep every team playing. A first round pass for the top divisional winners, as is done in the NFL, would be unthinkable for baseball. How often have we seen a team struggle after sweeping a playoff series and then suffering through a long wait until the next round can start ? Look to the NHL for an example of how this is done correctly. Let the team with the best record play the one with the worst, second play next to worst and so on. And this leads to the next important consideration…..
(3) Don’t do anything to punish the wild-card teams in the play-off system. Again, the NHL gets this right as they play a best-of-seven series and expect the higher ranked teams to defeat those below them with nothing more than a single home game advantage to the team with the better record. I also like the NHL format of 2 home games, 2 away games and then alternating home and away for the final three, but this also leads to a longer series due to all of the travel, so I’ll concede to the traditional MLB format of 2-3-2. If the length of the extended playoffs is an issue, eliminate the travel days and only use them between series. This can shorten the playoffs by as many as three days per round, again mimicking the grind of the regular season.
(4) Start new playoff record keeping. Nothing enrages a dinosaur like me faster than calling someone like Cliff Lee the winningest pitcher in post-season history (that was illustrative, not factual). We have no idea how many home runs Mickey Mantle would have hit if they had divisional and league playoffs in the 50’s and 60’s. Bob Gibson and Whitey Ford might have 30 or more wins in post-season instead of the mind-boggling totals from their era. You might need to put your calculators into scientific mode to record Sandy Koufax’s strikeout totals. This is surely a problem in the regular season as well (Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds), but for those players I mentioned, the seasons when they didn’t win their respective pennant, they were certainly the second best team in their league (more so for the Dodgers and Cardinals than the Yankees).
An extended playoff system will change the game again, but more of an evolutionary one than revolutionary. We already have a wild-card, so why not a couple more ? No, I wouldn’t do it, but then again, I’d go back to the two divisional alignment and let the chips fall where they do, but I’m not going to argue against this change if doing so would lesson the ability for all of the generations to share their love of the game.
This one might be tough, but I would like to see something done to bring the two leagues closer together, or at least playing by the same set of rules. I’d also like to see inter-league play abolished, but free agency has largely destroyed the mystique of a championship series played between two combatants who never face each other in the regular season – but that’s a topic for another day.
If we can all agree that something must be done then we must be realistic in our expectation of the American League abandoning the DH. It is just not going to happen. Period.
So …… that puts the ball in the court of the National League, for yet another non-baseball related metaphor. The National League will eventually adopt the DH, just as the NFL has adopted “in the grasp of the defender, throwing away the ball when outside of the tackles and pass interference only on catchable balls.” The failure in Major League Baseball is less about the merits of the DH but that each league is allowed to play the game under a different set of rules, and that has to come to an end. Differences in how they play the game (NL being a fastball first and the AL being curveball first) is acceptable, but the rules that govern the game must be uniform. If that requires me to come off my “purity of the game” stance, then that’s what it will take and I can live with that. I would be vastly disappointed, but I’m not going to turn my back on the game nor am I going to give anybody who is in favor of the DH a hard time for their opinion.
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next few years. Things will be different, certainly with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement just around the corner, but other structural changes are going to happen. Ultimately it will fall upon us fans to embrace these changes enthusiastically so that we can continue the conversations rather than driving a “the way baseball used to to be played” wedge between the generations.